Item 22, The Jealous Wife: Introduction

Item 22, THE JEALOUS WIFE, INTRODUCTION: FOOTNOTES

1 For the analogues, see Gripkey, “Mary-Legends,” p. 25.

2 For these collections, see the works by Tryon, Boyd, Meale, and Whiteford in the bibliography below.

3 Thomas D. Cooke, “Miracles of the Virgin,” MWME 9.24.3181.

4 In the other versions, the workings of the witch and/or the discovery of the husband’s nightly disappearances suffice to make the wife jealous.

 
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Item 22, The Jealous Wife: Introduction

Origin, Genre, and Themes

The Jealous Wife is the first of three texts in Ashmole 61 that are incomplete. Due to the loss of two leaves after fol. 65, the conclusion of this tale is missing. Fortunately, although Ashmole 61 preserves the unique text of this verse version, we can make an educated guess about the ending of the tale on the basis of the numerous surviving analogues in Mid­dle English, Latin, French, German, and Italian.1 And even with­out its ending, The Jealous Wife ranks as one of the finest surviving Middle English miracles of the Virgin Mary.

Miracles were attributed to Mary from the early centuries of Christianity onwards. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, spurred by the fervent Mariolatry of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (and then the Franciscans and Dominicans), Latin writers compiled large col­lections of Marian miracles, which in turn made their way into the vernacular. Middle English collections of Mary’s miracles include the South English Legendary, a group pre­ser­ved in the Vernon manuscript, and Wynkyn de Worde’s printed anthology, The Myracles of Oure Lady.2 Miracles of the Virgin were read on the various feast days devoted to her and used as the basis for numerous dramatic performances. The Virgin was widely venerated in England among all classes of the laity and the religious, both at the local shrines dedicated to her (especially Wal­singham, where a replica of the Virgin’s house was a major pilgrim­age site) and in daily devo­tion. A Prayer to Mary (item 15) is only one example of a wide range of prayers, extra-liturgical rites, and contemplative exercises dedicated to the Virgin. These practices made use of the Virgin’s repu­tation as the great intercessor for sinners, and miracles of the Virgin demonstrate how her devotees were rewarded.

Though in theory the Church insisted that the Virgin was not the equal of the Trin­ity and could only persuade the Father and the Son to act on her behalf, in practice the Vir­gin’s miracles suggest an almost limitless sense of her powers. In various tales “she de­fends people in court, rescues them from prison, helps them build a church, saves a be­sieged town, nurses the ill with her own breasts, restores limbs, fights in a tournament, touches, consoles, and even kisses those devoted to her.”3 She is able to rescue those in their last moments of life from damnation (hence the closing phrase in the current form of the Ave Maria prayer, “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”), and in the oft-told tale of Theophilus, she goes so far as to rescue a cleric who had sold his soul to the devil.

This last example resembles the situation in The Jealous Wife, where the title char­acter, having killed her children and committed suicide in a jealous rage, seems justi­fiably damned until rescued by the intercession of Mary. Though the text breaks off before the wife’s rescue is complete, in other surviving versions of the tale the wife and children are restored to life. The wife has done nothing to earn this reprieve, but her husband’s dedi­cation to Mary has earned it for her. This in turn recalls another theme of Marian miracles, the Virgin’s habit of rewarding those devoted to her, even those who are otherwise sinful. As Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale and many others illustrate, even the simplest, most naïve forms of devotion to Mary (including prayers and songs whose words are not understood) earned her special protection. In The Jealous Wife, the hus­band’s regular habit of rising in the middle of the night to pray to the Virgin goes above and beyond the usual veneration, but the point remains the same: anyone, without the aid of clerics or the sacraments of the Church, could gain Mary’s mediation on their behalf.

At the center of The Jealous Wife lies a narrative improbability that is not present in most other surviving versions of the story and is nevertheless essential to the workings of the plot as it is preserved here.4 The wife’s jealousy arises from her casual question ask­ing her husband whom he loves most of all; the husband replies that he loves only one woman more than his wife. Obviously, the wife might press him further on this, inquir­ing what he meant by loving an unnamed woman more than “any erthly thyng,” and the husband rather foolishly misses an opportunity to clarify his curious statement (line 96). Yet this unlikely misunderstanding relies on another cherished literary tradition sur­rounding the Virgin, one that reveres her in quasi-erotic terms with the language of secular love poetry.

Ashmole 61’s text breaks off at the moment when the wife has been rescued from damnation by the Virgin, while the grieving husband is still in prayer, fearing that he will be accused of killing his wife and children. In many of the surviving analogues, the husband returns from his anxious vigil to find his wife alive and nursing the children. The version pre­sented here has laid the narrative and emotional groundwork for this ending by includ­ing the story of the remarkable birth of those children following a long period of lamented childlessness. The story is thus rich with biblical — and specifically Marian — echoes. Assuming the story ends as these others do, it includes a miraculous birth, a Judas-like betrayal (by the witch who tempts the jealous wife), a descent into hell, a redemption, and a final scene that recalls the holy family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. In its careful structure, skillfully-handled dialogue, and swift-moving plot, the story is nothing less than a minor masterpiece of its genre.

Manuscript Context

The Jealous Wife demonstrates the potential efficacy of A Prayer to Mary (item 15) and the value of contemplating her sorrow, aided by texts such as The Lament of Mary (item 30). In this way it differs from the other short exemplary narratives, The Knight Who Forgave His Father’s Slayer and The Incestuous Daughter (items 18 and 23). Those tales de­scribe the rewards of extraordinary acts of forgiveness and contrition; The Jealous Wife de­scribes the rewards of daily devotion, a practice available to all. Though the loss of two leaves means that we cannot be absolutely certain that The Incestuous Daughter followed im­mediately after The Jealous Wife, it seems likely, and the two texts share the common theme of redemption from the brink of damnation. In some analogues, The Incestuous Daughter is also a miracle of the Virgin. Along with the preceding text, Sir Corneus (item 21), these three adjoining texts all feature women whose deadly sins ultimately go unpunished.

The Jealous Wife recalls many other texts in Ashmole 61, including The King and His Four Daughters (item 26) with its debate between Mercy and Justice, and the many narratives that end with joyous family reunions (items 1, 5, 20, and 39).

Text

Aside from the glaring fact of the text’s incompletion due to the missing leaves after fol. 65, the text is not noticeably defective, and there is every reason to believe that it was originally complete. Rate makes many of his customary minor errors (dropping many let­ters), but none disfigure the text and there are no apparent omissions of stanzas. He has bracketed the rhyming lines of the aabccb stanzas.

Printed Editions

Boyd, Beverly, ed. The Middle English Miracles of the Virgin. San Marino, CA: Hunting­ton Library, 1964. Pp. 92–104. [Prints the text of Ashmole 61.]

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Altenglische Legenden, neue Folge mit Einleitung und Anmerkungen. Pp. 329–33. [Prints the text of Ashmole 61.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 1987
MWME 9.24.87.3218–19, 3526–27
Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk Literature. [See T376.1]

See also Gripkey, Meale (1990), Southern (1958), Tyron, Ward, and Whiteford in the bibliography.

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